Fall of the House of Findel: Colts Neck’s “Zombie Mansion”
All the world was a depressing grey. The cold air bit at our skin as we made our way up the long driveway, meandering through downed tree limbs and collapsed piles of stone, which were once retaining walls. The only greenery in sight on this cold January morning was that of a small bamboo forest which was now growing wild just off the edge of the leaf-covered pavement. We rounded one last bend and our destination finally came into view––a grand mansion… or the remains of one at least.
The story of this forsaken mansion begins and ends with a single man, David Findel, who was the president and CEO of the successful financial planning company ‘Worldwide Financial Resources’ of Marlboro, NJ. A bulk of the company’s business was in creating mortgages for their customers. How it would work is this––the customer would approach WFR seeking a loan, for which they would mortgage their home. WFR would get the customer their money via a ‘warehouse lender’, a company that fronts money to people, which is repaid with interest. After WFR obtained the customer their funds from the lender they would then sell the mortgage to a third party, typically a bank, which would handle the mortgage until it was repaid. WFR profited from fees associated with the mortgage creation (paid by the customer) and by the sale of the mortgage (paid by the bank). The business was wildly successful by any definition of the term, handling around $90 million monthly. So much so that in 2002 Mr. Findel purchased a plot of land in the tony town of Colts Neck, NJ, upon which he had a massive 21,000 square foot mansion constructed. It was clearly built to impress, with a tremendous master staircase at the entry, and an enormous ballroom, inside which could easily fit an average sized house. At the time it was the most expensive home built in Colts Neck. But the days of high living in opulence would last much longer for the 51-year old real estate mogul.
In 2008, just six years after the mansion was built, the housing market was in the throws of a collapse––the bursting of a bubble which had been inflating since the 1990’s. One doesn’t need to have a background in real estate to understand the impact that a market disaster like this had on Worldwide Financial Resources a company built upon a foundation of obtaining mortgages. Simply put, the business was drying up, rapidly. It was then that Mr. Findel’s scheme was born. Using paperwork the company had on file from previous customers, he set about creating false mortgages. He utilized these false documents to acquire the funds from lending warehouses, and then sold these fake mortgage contracts to various third parties, just as he did with the legitimate ones. His nefarious plot worked well, to the order of some $11 million. To say that the income led to a life of excess would be putting things mildly. Mr. Findel’s spending actually made national headlines in 2008, when he bid $400,000 to purchase season tickets for fifty-yard line seats at the new Meadowlands Sports Complex, which was still under construction at the time.
The house impressed, that much was certain, but appearances defied reality. In essence Findel was robbing people and riding high on their stolen money. Unlike a typical robbery though, misdeeds against banks, credit unions, and loan institutions constitute a federal crime, and the United States government isn’t one to let millions of dollars just slide. Findel’s scam imploded quickly, and come the fall of 2011 he found himself in court, pleading guilty to the $11 million scheme. He was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, and ordered to pay $12 million in restitution. His assets, including the Colts Neck house, were stripped from him upon sentencing.
We entered through a shattered window, minding the broken glass, experiencing that uncomfortable temporary blindness one does when entering into a dark and shadowy interior from the bright daylight outside. We were in the ballroom, or at least that’s what it used to be not long ago. A cavernous space, one that cast upon us a dizzying sensation as more and more of the room became visible as our eyes adjusted to the shadowy home. We moved inward, the glass cracking under our feet echoed out into the void, resonating back at us many times before dispersing in a whisper. We stood in silence on the cold marble for some time, taking in what we were seeing. All was silent save for the wind in the trees outside, which could be heard through the broken windows. It was immediately evident that this vacant property has not gone unnoticed by the local kids, and graffiti covers most surfaces, punctuated by the occasional hole kicked through sheet rock. In fact, in the past five years of its abandonment the home had been dubbed the “Zombie Mansion,” by local press, vandals, and online urban explorers.
The Findel estate was more a castle than a home. Beyond the massive ballroom stood a grand staircase that could very well be the physical definition of ‘grand staircase.’ Its railings were so wide that they seemed better suited as shelves than as a guide for your hands. The oversized rails outlined two sets of curved stairs, each acceding to a landing and meeting at a balcony, which overlooked both the main entrance and the ballroom. On the upper floor was a hallway that led to the bedrooms, with the master found beyond a double door at the far end. On the ground floor was the kitchen, a cooking space large enough to prepare a meal for a platoon let alone a single family. There were also numerous common rooms, a dining room, and a large living room. Considering the design and imposing scale of the mansion, many of the rooms felt sterile and exceedingly empty, factors that were amplified by the sparse sunlight. It was as if the entirety of the house had been drained of its life, and unceremoniously discarded. One of the lone remainders from this house’s days as a home was a single 8×10 portrait of a young boy. The face was burnt away, leaving the child in the photograph unrecognizable. It lay on the marble floor, the only item in a pitch-black corridor. A cryptic harbinger of things yet to come.
For years the home existed in a kind of limbo, vacant but caught in the middle of a legal battle between multiple mortgage lenders, each claiming to be the rightful owner of the sprawling estate. It simply sat in silence, a depressing sight that greeted anyone who wandered up its long, overgrown drive. Or so it did until just after midnight on the morning of February 2nd, 2017. Reports of a fire on the property reached the police just before 12:30am, and by the time fire crews arrived at the scene the entirety of the mansion was engulfed in flames. Come afternoon of that same day all that remained of the estate amounted to little more than smoldering ashes in the footprint of where, just hours earlier, a manor stood.
“Any time a house is posted on social media and kids are getting into the house, there’s always a possibility of something bad happening,” Colts Neck Mayor Russell Macnow said at a press conference that day. “The township has been actively trying to get the lien holders to address the integrity of the property for exactly that reason.” Upon the extinguishing of the fire, Colts Neck Police Chief Kevin Sauter immediately launched an investigation into the cause of the blaze, which he deemed “suspicious.”
A fiery end to a building that will never get a chance at redemption, to be forever remembered in infamy as a home destroyed by greed, many years before flames finally took it away.
Video of the Colts Neck mansion shot by AntiquityEchoes.com just days before it was completely destroyed by fire.
All photos of the Feb. 2, 2017 fire taken by Tinton Falls Fire Company No. 1.
The preceding article is an excerpt from the new issue of Weird NJ magazine, #48 which is available now on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com and through our Amazon store.